The definitions of the word improvise means to perform or deliver without previous preparation. A second definition is to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available. I find the ability to improvise goes hand in hand with demonstrating flexibility. Engineers are not very flexible in their thinking and as a general rule they are not improvise very well.

I work as a project manager and I am required to improvise almost every single day. If the project is going according to plan all I have to do is sit back and stay out of the way. Of course life does not always go according to plan and that is why I hear about an issue on my projects every day.

In project management we try to manage risk. A risk is an uncertain event that can have a positive or negative affect on at least one aspect of the project. The project team develops a risk management plan and details a risk response strategy and when a risk occurs we have a plan for how to deal with it. That is the ideal world where engineers are most comfortable. We have a plan and that is what we follow. Of course the issues I deal with every day are the things we do not have a plan for.

When I improvise I am generally offering up a solution or making an adjustment that will allow my team to continue working on the project and allow the project to be delivered. The phone call comes in and I listen to the issue, ask a few questions and offer up a few suggestions and then we decide on a course of action and move forward.

One of my good friends Marvin gave me the idea for this story by reminding me of a time I was in a stressful situation and had to improvise to find a workable solution. I think a person’s ability to improvise comes from being in high stress situations and having to find immediate solutions to unplanned problems.

The situation Marvin remembers and the story he wants me to share comes from my younger and much wilder days. The Cliff’s Notes version of the story has us about to get a beating from a car load of guys that are seriously intent on doing some real harm to us. Outnumbered and in danger of serious bodily harm my brain was working overtime to come up with a solution. I improvised and came up with a weapon from the few assets we had in our car. I quickly kicked off my shoes and took off my socks and then slid a full can of Pepsi down into the sock. I used this improvised weapon to defend myself and was able to diffuse the situation and at least nobody with me was hurt.

I look back on that stressful situation and my ability to think under pressure and solve a problem under the most difficult of conditions and know that the experience translates into my job today and allows me to improvise. I guess this is just one more example of how the school of hard knocks provides training you just can’t get from reading a book.


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